After court’s gagged ruling on arms sales to Myanmar, activists call for protest

As hundreds of thousands displaced by violence in south Asian country, and Israeli government demands weapons exports be kept secret, Myanmar’s own military boasts of its purchases

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Rohingya Muslim refugees making their way into Bangladesh from Myanmar on September 7, 2017. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Rohingya Muslim refugees making their way into Bangladesh from Myanmar on September 7, 2017. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Activists called for an emergency protest in Jerusalem against possible Israeli arms sales to Myanmar on Thursday, after the High Court issued an undisclosed ruling on a petition to stop Israeli defense contractors from supplying the Asian nation with weaponry due to its alleged campaign of ethnic cleansing against some 400,000 Rohingya Muslims.

On Wednesday evening, the High Court of Justice rendered its verdict on the case but issued a gag order on the ruling preventing the decision from being published by Israeli media.

However, it can be reported that the activists who filed the petition were privy to the verdict and, upon seeing the results, announced they would hold a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on Thursday night to call for Israel to stop supplying Myanmar with weapons.

Activist attorney Eitay Mack speaks during a ceremony in April 2015. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Human rights attorney Eitay Mack, along with 10 other activists, filed the petition with the High Court in January to block all arms sales to the Myanmar government, which has been accused of committing war crimes against its Rohingya Muslim population for decades.

The past month has seen a dramatic increase in violence following an attack by Rohingya rebels against police positions, an act that sparked a violent response by Myanmar’s military.

Nearly half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh following a violent crackdown. The UN has called the campaign a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” and others have said it amounts to genocide.

Bangladesh army soldiers stand guard as Rohingya Muslim men, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait to receive aid during a distribution near Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on September 25, 2017. (Dar Yasin/AP Photo)

On Wednesday night, Mack commented on the apparent absurdity of the court placing a gag order on the verdict, in light of the fact that there is no such censorship on the activists’ continued public fight against arms sales to the Myanmar junta.

“What do the Defense and Foreign ministries expect of the Israeli public?” he asked rhetorically.

“If the ruling is hidden from us, the public is supposed to assume it all worked out?”

“The Israeli public has a right to know what is being done in its name in Myanmar and everywhere else in the world where crimes against humanity are being committed”

The attorney also said that he and the 10 other activists will work to overturn the gag order on the High Court’s judgment.

“The Israeli public has a right to know what is being done in its name in Myanmar and everywhere else in the world where crimes against humanity are being committed,” Mack said.

Mack has been a central figure in the efforts to curb Israeli arms sales to countries accused of human rights violations. For years, he has sent requests to the Defense Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing defense exports, filed petitions with the courts and worked on drafting legislation on the issue.

He has met with limited success.

A South Sudanese soldier, right, holds a Galil ACE rifle, made by Israel Weapons Industries (circled in red), alongside another soldier holding what appears to be an AK-47 assault rifle. (United Nations)

His petition to the High Court of Justice to end arms sales to South Sudan last year also ended with a gagged ruling. His attempt to make public the records of Israeli defense exports to Rwanda while the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi minority was underway also failed last year.

However, in this case, Mack felt he had a chance. The evidence of Israeli arms sales to Myanmar is indisputable, as is much of the documentation of war crimes by the country’s military.

Taken together, he argued, these two factors show that while Israel is not necessarily violating its own laws, which do not explicitly forbid the sale of weapons to regimes carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide, the practice does go against international agreements that Israel has agreed to uphold.

Support has grown for Mack’s efforts in recent weeks, in light of the Myanmar military’s intensified attacks against the minority group following a terror attack by Rohingya rebels. According to a UN report published Sunday, this latest crackdown includes systematic rape, murder, and the burning of villages. Rohingya refugees fleeing to next-door Bangladesh told of babies being decapitated and other atrocities.

“It is untenable that a state founded on the vision of the prophets should support” the Myanmar government

Last week, for instance, a group of 54 rabbis and Jewish community leaders penned a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, calling for them to halt arms sales to Myanmar and support a bill — written by Mack and proposed by Likud MK Yehudah Glick and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg last year — that would restrict weapons exports to human rights violators.

“It is untenable that a state founded on the vision of the prophets should support [the Myanmar government],” the religious leaders wrote.

The bill written by Mack, which is essentially a translation of an existing American law, would expressly prevent arms sales to countries committing “gross human rights violations.”

Bangladesh army soldiers stand guard as Rohingya Muslim refugees, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait to receive aid during a distribution near Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on September 25, 2017. (Dominique Faget/AFP Photo)

Avidan Freedman, a teacher and religious leader, who gathered together the group of rabbis and Jewish community figures, said he hoped that “given the evidence, the High Court will make a decision morally in line with what Israel should be.”

In his arguments, Mack noted that both the United States and the European Union have placed arms embargoes on Myanmar.

Freedman added that barring sales to human rights violators would be “one of the most important steps for Israel to get in line with the rest of the Western world.”

Not-so-secret arms sales

As a world leader in the realm of defense technologies, Israel uses the sale of its products in order to make and keep allies, especially in the developing world.

The Defense Ministry is directly responsible for the oversight of arms sales, but the Foreign Ministry also weighs in on the decisions of which countries can receive Israeli arms.

The state’s attorney in the case, Shosh Shmueli, argued that the court does not have the authority to go against the ministries’ decision.

Israel’s defense exports are largely secret, with the list of countries to which Israeli firms can sell weapons kept classified.

However, in the case of Myanmar, that secrecy was not an issue as most of the proof came from public and highly visible statements made by an Israeli company that sold defense technology to Myanmar and by the country’s own commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The Defense Ministry also has three publicly acknowledged positions for officials who facilitate arms sales to Myanmar and other countries in South Asia.

Following a 2015 visit to Israel, Hlaing announced that his country was purchasing the Super Dvora III patrol boat, which is manufactured by the government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.

Hlaing also boasted of meeting with Brig. Gen. (res.) Mishel Ben Baruch, who is the head of the Defense Ministry’s International Defense Cooperation Agency, which helps set Israel’s arms export policy.

Last year, the Israeli defense contractor TAR Ideal Concepts also announced that its CornerShot, a gun extension that allows the user to shoot around corners, was “now in service in Myanmar’s Special Operations Task Force.”

(The company later took down the announcement from its site, but left the web address as “Israeli CornerShot in Myanmar,” along with pictures from the country with the caption “Special weapons systems in Asia.”)

Mack recalled that as he was discussing Israel’s arms sales to Myanmar on Monday, the state’s attorney requested that this aspect of the case be discussed behind closed doors, as it was related to what is meant to be classified information. However, the judge quickly dismissed this request, given the extent to which these sales have repeatedly and blatantly been made public.

After the state’s attempt on Tuesday to again have this information be put under a gag order, Mack wondered if “the state’s attorney also means to delete the posts on the head of the military junta’s Facebook page about arms sales and training with Israel.”

Guns for human rights violators

In his petition, Mack also documented the decades of constant abuse and, at times, horrific violence carried out against Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar military.

However, Myanmar’s apparent crimes against humanity would not necessarily prevent Israeli companies from supplying the country with weapons — at least as far as Israeli domestic law is concerned.

Israel’s defense exports are regulated according to a 2007 law that dictates, among other things, that the seller must consider who the end user of the product will be and what they will use it for. This is meant to prevent companies from selling weapons to one country, knowing that they will be resold to a forbidden country.

It is also meant to ensure that defense contractors do not knowingly sell weapons to countries that plan to use them for war crimes.

While these issues are required to be considered, they can be overruled out of diplomatic or security concerns under the 2007 law.

A young Rwandan girl walks through Nyaza cemetery outside Kigali, Rwanda, on Monday November 25, 1996, where thousands of victims of the 1994 genocide are buried (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Currently, Israeli law only prevents the sale of weapons to countries that are under an official embargo from the UN Security Council. However, such embargoes rarely happen, generally because of vetoes by China and Russia.

Mack noted that even in the case of the widely documented Rwandan genocide in 1994, it took the UN Security Council over a month and a half to issue an arms embargo.

Mack argued that arms sales to Myanmar violate international agreements.

He cited precedent in a number of international tribunals, including the trial against Jean-Paul Akayesu concerning his role in the Rwandan genocide.

The international court found him guilty of “complicity by procuring means, such as weapons, instruments or any other means, used to commit genocide, with the accomplice knowing that such means would be used for such a purpose.”

Mack also noted Israel agreed to uphold a United Nations rule against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. That agreement calls for countries to both not commit such atrocities and to “encourage and help states to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.”

Displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar walk near Ukhia, at the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, as they flee violence on September 4, 2017. (AFP/K.M. Asad)

Following a request from multiple countries, the UN Security Council is slated to discuss the situation in Myanmar on Thursday.

While the UN has designated the military operation an example of ethnic cleansing, French President Emmanuel Macron went further last week, saying the attacks on the Rohingya minority amounted to “genocide.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also accused Myanmar of waging “Buddhist terror” against the Muslim minority and also denounced its campaign as “genocide.”

On Monday, Myanmar’s UN ambassador insisted that there is no “ethnic cleansing” or genocide taking place against Muslims and objected “in the strongest terms” to countries that used those words to describe the situation.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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